The Prayer of the Prodigal King in Psalm 51

The God of Mercy

When the prophet Nathan confronted King David about his prodigal or riotous actions, David cried out to God in Psalm 51. His prayer included confession and asking for God’s forgiveness. But the question must be asked, upon what basis could David make such a request?

David acknowledged that God would be perfectly just in taking his life. God did not and does not have to show mercy. David expressed this when he prayed, So that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment (Psalm 51:4). God would have been justified in taking the life of David. David could lay no blame at the feet of God if God would have done that.

Although David sinned against his wife and family, against Bathsheba and her husband, he chiefly had violated the law of God. David said it this way, Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight (Psalm 51:4). God could have separated himself forever from David and he would have maintained his holiness and justice.

But David know that God is also a merciful God. This earthly king cast himself before the throne of the King of Kings and asked for mercy. On what basis could he or on what basis may we be so bold as to ask for mercy from this holy, just God?

Near the end of his prayer, David asserted that God’s mercy was not contingent upon however many or whatever kind of sacrifices he could make. God’s mercy is not based upon our actions. What David did understand is what we must learn – that God’s mercy is an action based upon the character of God. God not only acts mercifully. He is a God of mercy. It’s in his character to grant mercy.

The opening breath of the psalm portrays David’s grasp of this. Have mercy on me, O God, according to…(Psalm 51:1). The basis of God’s mercy is what comes after according to. David completes that sentence with two parallel statements that give us great hope for the forgiveness of our sins.

According to Your Steadfast Love

David’s request for mercy was based on the steadfast love of God. The word translated love is pregnant with meaning. It carries the idea of a supreme love that is gracious in it’s actions. David found mercy from God because God loved David. When God places his affections on someone, God delights in being merciful to that person.

The hymn writer Charles Wesley penned it this way, Amazing love, how can it be… God’s love is amazing. David, however, used a different descriptor. He called it steadfast love. God’s love for his people does not ebb and flow like the tide effected by the phases of the moon. He loves his own when they are faithful. He still loves them when they sin. In fact, he loves us as much when we sin as he does when we are faithful.

God’s love is not dependent upon our actions. David presented himself before God on the basis of the steadfast love that God possessed for David.

According to Your Abundant Mercy

David also grounded his request on the basis that God possesses abundant mercy. It is part of his character. How much mercy does God possess? Man cannot measure his mercy. It is sufficient to know that it is abundant. Another hymn includes the line, Grace that is greater than all our sin. Pile up all of your ugly sin. Stack it high. God’s mercy is plentiful enough to cover it all.

David was guilty of adultery and murder. Both are heinous crimes against God. But God’s mercy is greater than the combination of these sins. His mercy is abundant.

When we combine the fact that God is holy and just with the fact that he is loving and gracious, we have a conundrum. How can the first fact be reconciled with the second fact? Or better yet, how can a holy God have mercy on a sinful man?

The answer is the gospel answer. God poured out his holy and just wrath on his own Son and counted that Son’s righteousness as our own. In so doing, God retains his holiness while demonstrating his mercy.

Back to the hymns,

  • Oh how he loves you. Oh how he loves me. Oh how he loves you and me. He gave his life. What more could he give?
  • Amazing love! How can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?

Like David, our only hope for mercy is that God shows himself merciful by pouring his wrath on Jesus. Therefore, we are told in Hebrews, Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy (Hebrews 4:16).